Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s (redacted) report released last week lays out in stunning detail Russia’s sophisticated covert influence campaign to ensnare the Trump campaign, our election processes, and the American people. These findings have far-reaching national security implications. Here are the five biggest national security takeaways from the report:
1. Russian intelligence circled the Trump campaign and eventual administration like sharks looking for access and information. Moscow recruited Carter Page, one of Trump’s eventual foreign policy advisers, as an intelligence asset as early as 2013 (pg. 97). The report details many other links between members of the Trump campaign and Russian officials or Russian businessmen acting on behalf of Putin or intelligence services (pg. 7). These links often led to email exchanges or even in-person meetings that Russia used to try to recruit those with access to Trump as assets or informants, including between Erik Prince and a Russian businessman in the Seychelles (pg. 148). As the report notes, Russian officials believed they were making inroads.
Although the report maintains no one knowingly cooperated with Russia, Moscow’s dogged attempts and obvious pitches to Trump campaign members should have been a dead giveaway of their intent and resulted in immediate calls from the campaign to the FBI.
2. For their part, the Trump campaign seemed to know their links to Russia were shady. The report shows that several members of the campaign understood that overt ties to Russia would have a negative public backlash. For example, Russian officials and individuals linked with the government tried unsuccessfully several times to arrange a meeting between Russian President Putin and then candidate Trump. In response to one of many requests for Trump to meet Putin in Moscow, Manafort said “It should be someone low level in the Campaign so as not to send any signal.” (pg 90)
However, the report also makes clear that campaign was very happy to profit from, and even encouraged, Russian efforts that quietly helped them. In fact, the campaign believed it “would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts” (pg. 2). In June 2016, Russian military intelligence (GRU) began its first hacking operations against Clinton campaign emails just five hours after Trump publicly said he wanted to Russia to find the 30,000 emails allegedly stored on Clinton’s personal server (pg. 49). Separately, in the now famous Trump Tower meeting of June 9, 2016, Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and then campaign manager Paul Manafort met with Russian officials on the promise that they would be receiving incriminating information on presidential candidate Hillary Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump” (pg 118). When the meeting became public, the campaign went to great lengths to deny it ever happened and then to hide its purpose.
3. Even with heavy redactions, the report shows just how much Russia’s full-scale social media operation to spread disinformation fooled Trump campaign members, some journalists, and the American people during the election. The Russian government-linked Internet Research Agency (IRA) created fake social media accounts, groups, and whole armies of bots pretending to be Americans whose content reached millions of people (pg. 14). Members of Trump’s campaign routinely shared IRA posts on social media, becoming unwitting amplifiers for its messaging and disinformation.
When Russia published via websites it created and through WikiLeaks hacked information it had stolen from the DNC servers and emails from the Clinton, members of the IRA reached out to journalists to feed them the information (pg. 43). Donald Trump Jr. was also in direct contact with WikiLeaks about the hacked materials. Russia’s online influence campaign has only continued since the election.
4. Russia’s efforts to hack political and election infrastructure were successful and were in no way novice. Russian military intelligence (GRU) employed both public and customized cyber tools, including targeted spearphishing attempts, to gain access to private networks and servers. Once they gained access, they used encrypted connections between them and the victim capable of large-scale exfiltration of data. This tool makes it more difficult to identify what information has been taken.
The GRU also successfully hacked entities involved in election administration, such as state and local government websites, simply by trolling relevant sites looking for cyber vulnerabilities. Using this method, GRU gained access to millions of records of registered Illinois voters and the network of at least one county government in Florida (pg. 51).
5. The report shows the limits of a national security investigation when there is incomplete information. The report explains that the Special Counsel could not rule out the possibility that having access to all of the relevant information could have altered its findings. It clearly lays out consistent efforts of those being investigated, to include all the way up to the president, to withhold information, delete evidence, and lie. As the report says, “Those lies materially impaired the investigation of Russian election interference” (pg. 9).
Trump also refused to be interviewed for the investigation, and the report deemed the written responses Trump did provide to Mueller’s questions “inadequate” (pg. 418). Trump’s advisers routinely changed their stories and used end-to-end encrypted messaging applications to discuss issues where law enforcement would not be able to monitor them. Finally, without access to Russian individuals under investigation or members of groups like Wikileaks, Mueller had to rely on intelligence collection, which can never paint a full picture of an issue.
Even with those gaps, the report paints a grave picture of the ongoing threat to national security. What is worse, we have a president singularly interested in denying these threats even exist. Given the findings of the report, the question no longer seems to be whether Russia’s attacks had an impact on the results of the 2016 election, but how much did their efforts change the results?
(You can read the Mueller report here: https://www.justice.gov/storage/report.pdf)